Waco will look fund preparations for future emergency needs as it continues weighing possibilities for $37 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding headed to the city.
The American Rescue Plan will send $350 billion to qualifying state, territorial, tribal and local governments, which can, broadly, use the money to pay for direct pandemic expenses or for future emergency management preparations. Because of their size, Waco and McLennan County qualified for payments automatically without having to apply. In addition to Waco’s $37 million, the county is expecting about $49 million. Of the $350 billion, $20 billion is set aside for local governments serving a population of less than 50,000, which will have to apply for funding and receive it through the state government.
Waco City Manager Bradley Ford said he is looking for places where the Waco City Council’s priorities and the funding guidelines intersect. In the wake February winter storms that tested power and water systems, municipal water infrastructure sticks out as especially important for the city to address, Ford said.
“In my mind as manager, we just walked through the really difficult winter storm, and we successfully navigated it right and water stayed on, and by and large we did a great job,” Ford said. “But I’m thinking we’re going to need to prioritize some water and wastewater resiliency projects. Then, we’ll be able to operate those water treatment plants and water production plants during emergencies.”
He said investing in the water and wastewater systems is important regardless what kind of disaster comes next, whether those emergencies are man-made or otherwise.
Ford said he expects the first allotment of about half the American Rescue Plan money within the next few weeks. Planning what to use the funding for, presenting those plans to the Waco City Council and acting on them will be a monthslong process.
Broadband improvements are another high priority after the COVID-19 pandemic made internet access a must for people working and attending classes from home, especially in rural areas and parts of the city core where fewer people have internet access, Ford said.
The city is open to collaborating with other entities due to receive money, including McLennan County or a local school district, he said. He and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton have been comparing notes about the plan and its requirements for the last few months, Ford said.
“We work with the county on a lot of different things, economic development, mental health partnerships, roads, water and planning come to mind for sure,” Ford said. “There’ll be some projects that serve both entities well.”
The funding can be used for public health expenditures, people who have seen financial impacts from the pandemic, to replace lost public sector revenue, to pay a premium to health care workers who are at higher risk for contact with the virus, or to invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
With a population of a little more than 10,000 people, Bellmead is among the cities in the area preparing to go through the process of applying for money.
Bellmead Assistant City Manager Karen Evans said the city expects $2.3 million in aid, which would come through the state rather than directly from the federal government. She said the city is still waiting for guidance on how to apply for the funding, but in the meantime her staff is continuing to process paperwork related to February’s winter weather.
“We have millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure needs, which was highlighted during (the) winter storm,” Evans said.
With the state distributing the funding, some additional restrictions on use are expected, compared to the money heading to larger cities directly from the federal government, she said. Funding the Texas Department of Emergency Management distributed through a previous round of federal COVID-19 relief, for example, required local entities to cover 25% of the cost of projects they were seeking funding for, Evans said.